UNESCO and the ministries of Tourism and Environment this weekend will launch a campaign aimed at ridding the capital of the plastic waste currently choking its waterways and piling up in its landfills.
The campaign, starting on Friday, will seek to educate Cambodians about how to cut down on plastic waste, which also kills wildlife and persists in the environment for thousands of years.
After an information session at Wat Botum at 7:30am, event partners and volunteers will hit the streets to collect plastic rubbish along the riverside and near the Royal Palace.
“It starts with us,” said Eang Siphan, the governor of Chbar Ampov district. “The authorities always have to educate people to divide rubbish and plastic that could affect the environment.”
Vin Spoann, a research adviser at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that plastic bags comprise a quarter of the material that blocks urban water drainage pipes.
Burning bags poison the air and create health hazards, while wildlife can choke or become sick when interacting with plastic bags, he added.
Plastic bags are also unsightly and hurt tourism, he said. Spoann’s surveys of tourists revealed that a majority would rather pay more money if it meant a reduction in plastic waste on the streets.
According to Spoann, an effective policy must involve public education campaigns, as well as a bit of both carrot and stick.
“We have two ways to push supermarkets and consumers to use eco-[friendly] bags,” he said. “Give certificates to supermarkets to give them incentives, and introduce regulations on plastic bags.”
Cambodia lacks binding policies on plastic waste management, Spoann said, but the capital’s Environmental Department is working with RUPP researchers, the Italian organisation ACRA and private consultants to create policy recommendations by 2017.
Yim Mongtoeun, another researcher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that he had been reviewing different countries’ strategy for plastic reduction.
He said that bans and surcharges have been successful in parts of Australia, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Hong Kong. They were less successful in some other countries, due to insufficient public education, he said.
“It’s not easy, because plastic bags are very popular right now,” he said. “Maybe [charging for the bags] would work if it’s paired with education.”
Several major retail centres are getting on board with plastic reduction, though they say they can’t do it alone. Nguon Sambath, the manager of Thai Huot Market, which is participating in UNESCO’s upcoming event, said that changing consumer behaviour is the toughest challenge. “We cannot go against our clients,” he said.
He said that it’s tough for stores to unilaterally charge for bags, because customers will flock to their competitors instead. A policy that all stores have to abide by would level the playing field.
Spoann said that any ban or surcharge will have its limitations. While it will be easy to enforce for big supermarkets, it would be significantly more challenging to get smaller vendors across Cambodia to follow suit.
Sin Sopheavy, a vendor at Kandal Market, said that local authorities have told sellers not to use plastic bags, but it’s difficult to comply due to customer demand. “My customers need a package for the food.
We still use plastic. There are no [alternatives] to package goods as easily as plastic.”